devyani kothari young adult fiction prize

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

I have been writing all my life – in any way, shape or form. But the past few years, I’ve dedicated myself to learning the craft of creative writing and have written two books including The Girl who saved Daro, which has won the Commonword prize. And only now have I started thinking of myself as a writer. To think of myself as an artist still feels a bit distant. I do, however, love art immensely. For me, art is everywhere and always has been. My mother is an artist and so I was blessed to grow up in a creative home.  I still remember the little me growing up in small town India, being mesmerised by the monsoon rain splashing against the window pane or being in awe of the constellations in the night sky that made me feel small in an incredible way. For me, the wonder of art whether made by nature or humans is all about how it makes you feel, the way it connects with you. It is that feeling, that connection that stays with you.

As a writer, I am constantly making – making new worlds, characters, settings, stories. Some of these things find their way onto the paper and some don’t and yet none are wasted effort. I love making things outside of writing as well – whether it is making costumes for my daughters’ for World book day, or bits of sewing or arts and crafts or small DIY projects around the house. The beauty of it all is to imagine something, give it form, give it your time, labour and love and to create something when there was nothing before. Few other things in life are as rewarding.


You’ve just won our Diversity Young Adult Fiction Prize with your first YA novel, The Girl Who Saved Daro. How did you feel when you found out you had won? What inspired you to tell this particular story? How would you describe your journey from initial spark to a fully formed novel?

Honestly, the word that sums up my reaction when I found out I had won is ‘shock’. The day I received the email telling me I was shortlisted, I cried. And not just a few tears either. To be shortlisted was such an honour, that I was certain that I’d had my fill of luck for a while. So when I was announced as the winner, I could scarcely believe it. I don’t think I even smiled! Writing is such an emotional and solitary endeavor – full of doubts and vulnerabilities that to have your writing acknowledged is truly a gift. It says to the writer, your writing matters, all of your self that you put in your writing matters and therefore, you matter. I will always be grateful to Commonword for giving me this gift.

I began writing The Girl who saved Daro at the beginning of this year as part of my CBC Children’s and YA writing programme. I was admitted to the programme on the basis of the first three chapters of another novel that I had started writing and had plotted out in great detail. However, during my first one on one, our tutor, Catherine Johnson said to me, “Tell the story that you want to tell” and I realised that that story wasn’t it. So, I started writing a new one – with no plan or preparation! I kept only two things from the previous novel – my protagonist’s name (Durga – the name of a Hindu warrior goddess) and the setting inspired by the Indus Valley civilization (which has fascinated me since childhood).

I wrote the first paragraph, which still remains largely unchanged and within it contained the inspiration, the foundation and the ending of the entire novel. As I starting writing the second paragraph, somehow the characters just arrived one by one and so did the events. Before I knew it I had written three new chapters in one go which became the basis of the rest of my CBC course. Later, I plotted out the entire novel, with the final ending image in mind and then I just wrote. My journey from initial spark to the full formed novel was exciting and enjoyable. I loved every bit of it!


What are you most excited about following being named the winner? Have you considered which Arvon course you may like to go on as part of your prize?

The Commonword Diversity YA prize is so special – the shortlisted authors have the privilege of their work being read by four judges. The winner gets a chance of their work being considered for publication, a full review of their manuscript by Marjacq and an Arvon course. For emerging writers, like me, this is an amazing opportunity.

I am very excited and daunted, at the same time, at the prospect of receiving feedback on my manuscript. I know it is going to be invaluable in helping me get my novel to its best possible version. I am also immensely looking forward to the Arvon course – all of their YA and Chlidren’s writing courses look so good. I know I will learn a lot from all of them but I am hoping once I receive the manuscript feedback and better understand which bits of my writing I need to work on, I will be able to make a more informed choice.


You were a participant on the CB Creative writers programme – what did you enjoy most about the programme? How did it help your writing?

It was a great course full of very helpful and practical advice on writing for children and young adults but the two things that I found invaluable were – our tutor, Catherine Johnson’s advice and the community of my fellow writers on the programme. Every time I am stuck while I am writing, I have Catherine’s voice in my head telling me to “dramatise, dramatise, dramatise” or to “make my protagonist more active”. I learnt so much from receiving feedback on my work from my fellow writers and also through critiquing their work. As it happens, once the course finished, a few of us have continued critiquing each other’s work on a regular basis. These are my ‘writing sisters’ who are superbly talented, dedicated and supportive. I feel so lucky to have met them – their feedback and encouragement was instrumental in helping me finish my novel and continues to help me improve my writing.


What advice would you give to emerging writers who are starting out in YA fiction?

As an emerging writer myself, rather than giving advice, I’d like to share what the experience has been like for me. When I first ventured hesitantly into my writing journey I told myself ‘I have a book in me’. I wrote that book and the writing of it taught me so much – about what it takes to turn an idea into a complete novel, the different elements that need to work in harmony for the book to work, my own writing process and what works for me. I also realised that my first novel wasn’t all that good but that only spurred me on to invest more of myself into writing. Writing my second novel has unraveled a whole new set of learnings. Now I tell myself ‘I have a well written book in me’ and then I’ll tell myself ‘I have a really well written book in me’ and … For me it is all about persistence from one stage of the journey to the next. And the reason why I persist is because I simply love to write, because I cannot not write.


What have been the best and the worst moments of your writing journey thus far? What does the future hold for you in your writing career?

Two moments stand out for me as contenders for the best moment – winning the Commonword prize, of course being one of them. The other was when I was writing the final chapter of The Girl who saved Daro. I was in a café, with my daughter, typing away furiously as the images came flooding to my head. While typing a pivotal scene, I got quite emotional and my daughter asked me what was wrong. When I told her about the scene, she read the words I had typed and stared at me blankly. And I said to her – ‘I am not that good a writer yet and so the words I write don’t do justice to the pictures in my head but someday I hope to get there’. I love that moment because it epitomises for me the wonder, joy and hope of writing.

There isn’t just one worst moment – there have been so many low points in my writing journey. Plenty of rejection, debilitating self-doubt and a crippling lack of confidence. But I know that’s just how it is – the nature of the game. So, I just keep going, breathing through those low points, reminding myself why I choose to write in the first place. And I am happy in the knowledge that through the very act of keeping going I will find myself on the next stage of my writing career, wherever that might lead to. I remain hopeful that someday my words and work will find their way out to the world and in the hands of young people like my daughters.


Where can we find out more about you and your work?

I’ve been fortunate to lead a wonderful life full of rich experiences and amazing people. I was born and brought up in India. After studying Computer engineering at university, where I met my husband, I moved to London over seventeen years ago and have worked in the Digital technology industry since. I have an MBA from Oxford where I met some of the most fascinating people. I am a mum to two daughters who fill me with joy and inspire me to be a better person every day. All of the colours and richness of my life’s experiences influence and shape my writing.

You can find me on twitter (@DevyaniNK).


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